The Rohingya Crisis: Is Aung San Suu Kyi Turning Back on Media Freedom and Human Rights?

By Han Wool Jung

Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese (Myanmarese) Nobel Peace prize winner who was under house arrest for pro-democracy activism, came to power as State Counsellor and leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD) in 2016 with a considerably free election. In the beginning, her victory was an auspicious win for the Myanmar democratization process. However, the prolonged ethnic conflict between the Buddhist majority and Muslim minority, the Rohingya, has turned into a genocide. In addition, the media, responsible for promoting freedom of information and dispersing injustice done to the Rohingya, is still severely repressed. As shown by recent imprisonment of two Reuters journalists, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who were investigating the brutal violence on the Rohingya, the military is controlling the coverage of the violence. All these have incited international outrage against the Myanmar military and the government, and especially Suu Kyi for not promoting media freedom and attempting to end the vicious cycle of violence and discrimination on the Rohingya.

Background of Rohingya Crisis
Myanmar is a Buddhist majority country with Muslim ethnic minority called the Rohingya, a population which has resided for centuries in the Rakhine state. The government has continuously denied that the Rohingya are part of Myanmar and has maintained that they are actually illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. The state has denied granting Rohingya citizenship since 1982, making them the largest stateless ethnic groupin the world. Moreover, this has created a discriminatory environment and excluded them from receiving state protection and other basic rights. Unlike previous violence and discrimination, which has been continuous since the 1970s, recent violence in August 2017 escalated into ethnic cleansing. This was a response to an attack carried out by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA)on police and army posts that culminated in the killing of nine police officers. The military reacted with a brutal campaign which included rape, murder, and village burnings, causing more than 700,000 Rohingya to flee to neighboring Bangladesh. The number of deaths is still unknown; however, a United Nations panel estimated the death toll to be as high as 10,000.

Despite the authority of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), which emphasizes civilian governance, Myanmar remains a highly militarized country even at the local level, leaving the state with a quasi-civilian government. It is apparent that Myanmar’s weak democracy has failed to diminish the excessive political power of the military, illustrated by its failure to restrain the military from committing such atrocities against the Rohingya. Although the military is a serious issue of its own, Suu Kyi seems indifferent to the Rohingya crisis. This poses a bigger concern for Myanmar’s democracy as she is unwilling to end violence and discrimination against the Rohingya, raising questions about the government’s dedication to universal representation and rightsprotections. Her indifference is demonstrated by her consistent silence, ignoring questions from both the local and foreign reporters regarding the crisis. Many international actors have accused her for not standing up for democratic values and have severely condemned her statement: “I don’t think there’s ethnic cleansing going on. I think ethnic cleansing is too strong an expression to use for what’s happening.”

Erosion of media freedom
Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo have been sentenced to seven years in prison for breaching the Official Secrets Act while investigating ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims. These arrests are one of many obstacles barring Burmese from getting information about the treatment of the Rohingya and the military’s human rights violations. Creating an even harsher environment for the press, this has seriously undermined journalists’ abilities to report on sensitive issues and has further prompted self-censoring practices. Press freedom, which is a cornerstone of democracy, is under threat because of these arrests and the increasing hostility the press faces. Despite Suu Kyi’s election promise to reform the media sector, it is apparent that NLD is still unwilling to improve the legal environment of the media. According to a number of watchdog groups such as PEN Myanmar, Committee to Protect Journalists, and Human Rights Watch, criminal defamation cases has not declined since NLD came to power. Unless the NLD ends the active use of section 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law – which allows the sentencing the journalist for defamation and causing undue influence – along with Unlawful Associations Act section 17(1) – which prevents journalists from gathering information – journalists cannot inform the public about unjust military practices and impediments to democratization.

Weaponizing social media
Active censorship and repression of press freedom does not mean that the public is oblivious to the disturbing truth about the Rohingya crisis. According to Reuters’ special investigation, Facebook is put to blame for playing a role in spreading hate speech in the midst of Rohingya crisis. Facebook was not prevalent in Myanmar six years ago when only 1.1 percent of the population had access to internet. However, Facebook’s userbase in Myanmar has spiked to 18 million users within a mere four years (up from 1.2 million). The government and nationalist Buddhist groups took advantage of Facebook to shape public perception on the Rohingya and other ethnic minorities. Anti-Muslim voices were amplified through the use of social media, where Reuters found more than 1,000 posts, comments and images that attacked the Rohingya. One post stated: “We must fight them the way Hitler did the Jews, damn kalars!”

Facebook usage has accelerated the manipulated perception of the Rohingya. It has been used as a tool to support the use of force by the military against the Rohingya and legitimize the violence and disenfranchisement the Rohingya face. Social media, which is widely recognized as a tool of democratization, is a double-edged sword that Myanmar’s government has used to legitimize these injustices and repress democratic voices.

Despite the hostile environment of the media, there are mounting numbers of protesters – unified by an online campaign #ArrestMeToo Facebook page – challenging the unfair sentencing of the two Reuters reporters. Until their arrests, the two journalists fought for the freedom of information and shouted to a crowd: “You can put us in jail, but do not close the eyes and ears of the people.”Since then, more than 70 protesters held a peaceful protest in September, asking the government to release the two journalists. Activist Thinzar Shunlei Yi also put forth “a call to the public to look at this form of oppression, and to urgently come together to review what is going on in the country.”

In the absence of support from the government to solve the Rohingya issue, civil society, journalist associations, and international organizations must work together to increase awareness about the serious human rights violations committed against the Rohingya. The #ArrestMeToo campaign has amplified a message to the government that repression of press freedom is not acceptable, and the two Reuters journalist have rigorously fought to reveal the case on ethnic cleansing by the military. While prominent international organizations and actors are heavily criticizing the Myanmar government and pressuring leaders to speak out about these issues, especially Suu Kyi, who was a renowned pro-democracy activist, they are also working with the local civil society to further investigate what is happening to the Rohingya living in military camps.

Han Wool Jung is an editor of Democracy & Society and a M.A candidate in Democracy and Governance Program at Georgetown University. She is also enrolled for a certificate program in Asian Studies under SFS.